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Book Review - The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

Sea Food for Thought

The Highest Tide
Jim Lynch

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

Review by W. R. Greer

Miles O'Malley is not your typical 13-year old boy. He's small for his age, much to his father's dismay. In many other ways, he comes across as pretty normal, except that he knows more about marine biology than everyone except marine biologists, and he can quote from all of Rachel Carson's books. Miles lives on the shores of Puget Sound near Olympia, Washington, and he's an insomniac. At night, during low tide, he goes out to the Sound, where life teems among the shallow waters and mud flats. He can identify hundreds of species of marine life, collecting spectacular examples of different sea creatures that he can sell to aquariums or private collectors. As The Highest Tide begins, Miles is narrating one of his nights on the Sound and pointing out all the life we can't see because we're either too lazy or too uneducated. He's recounting the night that set events in motion that made him famous. On that night, when he was 13, Miles found a giant squid.

Miles found the squid as it was dying. He called Professor Kramer, "his favorite adult," who alerted the media and scientific community. Giant squids are incredibly rare and found only in the deepest ocean. One had never been seen alive. Miles is interviewed by the local television reporter who asks him:

   "Why do you think this deep-ocean creature, this 'giant squid,' as Professor Kramer calls it, ended up in this little bay by your house?"
   That's when I said what I said. It was a throwaway line, the sort of thing I'd heard fancy-smart people say on television when asked impossible questions. I could blame it on exhaustion, but there was a part of me that believed it. All of that doesn't much matter, though, because I said it: "Maybe the earth is trying to tell us something."
   They liked that a lot. A kid says something like that, and people go ahhh. Offer a plausible scientific explanation and they yawn. Dip into the mystical, especially if you appear to be an unsullied, clearheaded child, and they want to write a song about you.
Miles' world is a tenuous one. His parents are obviously unhappy with each other, and are unaware of both his secret life on the Sound and his breadth of knowledge. He has a huge crush on Angie Stegner, the older girl next door who has always babysat him. Angie, though, is living life on the edge, is the lead singer and songwriter of her own band, and is supposed to go off to college in the fall. Florence lives two doors down. She's an old woman and a local psychic who gets almost all her predictions wrong. She's suffering from Parkinson's disease and is in increasingly failing health. She may have to move to an assisted living facility. Miles spends more and more time stopping by her house, tending to her needs and checking out the books piled everywhere in her home. She tells Miles of an unusually high tide coming in September, even though Miles knows the tide charts predict no such thing.

Miles often takes his buddy, Phelps, along with him to search for sea life they can capture and sell. Phelps is a riot, a wisecracking, sex-obsessed teenager who plays a mean air guitar. He's the earthy counterpoint to brainy Miles, and while he's a bit awed by Miles' knowledge, he does his best to bring him down to earth. A few days after finding the giant squid, Miles finds the corpse of a ragfish, another rare sea creature that's not supposed to be anywhere near Puget Sound. Now that Miles has repeated another remarkable find, the television reporter wants to know more about him. When the special news story about Miles airs on television, he's suddenly a celebrity. A new age cult wants him to speak to them, people wonder if he's anointed by God to find these rare creatures, and his parents are embarrassed by how little they know of him. Angie gets into more trouble, Florence gets worse, his parents continue to fight, even more unusual fish and other objects come into the Sound, and Miles might not have anyone special with whom to share his newfound fame. The fame, though, may be more trouble than it's worth.

Jim Lynch has written a delightful novel. The Highest Tide is part coming-of-age story and part cautionary tale. The increasing abundance of strange marine life in Puget Sound is also a metaphor for a coming-of-age story for the human race. As Miles struggles with that pivotal year in his life, the rest of the populace in that part of Washington try to come to grips with the odd behavior of the sea. Some use the events as an impetus to seek more knowledge, some just enjoy the spectacle, and some of them, well, go off the deep end. Miles, though, is more concerned with just getting through the summer, rescuing Angie, keeping his parents together, and tending to Florence. His moments alone in his kayak and exploring the Sound are almost like a religious experience for him. He's in tune with the world around him and knowledgeable enough to enjoy what he can see and find. Part of the delight in this novel is how Jim Lynch brings Puget Sound to life. Through Miles' eyes, we get to see and share the beauty he sees effortlessly every time he ventures out.

If you watched the bay often enough, you eventually saw the inexplicable. I once saw a healthy eagle with five-foot wingspan dive for fish and never resurface. I saw a winter duck—a red-breasted merganser—ride on the head of a seal for a full minute. I watched a snapping shrimp swing a claw at a sculpin twice its size and knock it unconscious. And more than once I watched surface water bulge and ripple, as if pushed by whales, yet with nothing behind or beneath it, with the water so clear and empty I could see the bottom. It took me a long time to learn to keep such moments to myself. Nobody has anywhere to file them, including me.
In many ways, Miles and Phelps are quintessential 13-year olds. They want to act like adults but are held back by their immaturity. They're incredibly curious about everything, and are willing to take chances and explore things forbidden to them. They call a sex line to find out more about sex, with hilarious results. Miles' innocence is precious, his fear of losing those closest to him is palpable, and his awe at the nature around him is humbling.

The Highest Tide is a short book, less than 250 pages, and can be read in one afternoon. Jim Lynch's debut novel spends a wonderful summer with Miles O'Malley and the interesting and peculiar life that abounds in Puget Sound. Take an afternoon and enjoy it for yourself.

Copyright © 2006

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